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How to prevent falls and protect your independence

July 28, 2020
Lily Moran

Most people take balance for granted. Like air, it’s one of those things you just don’t think about until it’s gone. And then suddenly, even the simplest of tasks become difficult or downright impossible.

An estimated 30 million people visit their doctors every year for balance-related issues. And balance disorders are the number-one reason that older adults suffer life-altering falls. In fact, a third of adults over 65 fall every year.

Time and again, we see how hip fractures can impact seniors’ lives. It’s devastating. More than 50 percent of patients over age 75 who live in long-term care facilities end up there because they fell and lost their ability to live independently.

Balance disorders can start quickly and unexpectedly. The most common causes include medication side effects, ear damage or infections, arthritis, strokes, head injuries, low blood pressure, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and arrhythmia.

It’s not totally unusual, though, to never really find a cause. Talk about frustrating!

Treating or curing an underlying issue such as ear or blood pressure problems can help to restore balance. But for millions of seniors, lack of equilibrium becomes a lifelong struggle.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. Tons of research consistently finds that one very simple thing can improve balance, prevent falls, and reestablish independence among older adults.

The Best Way to Restore Balance and Prevent Falls

Because so many of our readers are older, we follow all of the research that comes out on fall prevention. Lately, it’s been encouraging to read about a slew of studies that promote the value of exercise for correcting balance and reducing falls.

For seniors, the benefits of exercise go far beyond better endurance, flexibility, and strength. For one, it enhances coordination and reaction time, which can help you quickly grab on to something and prevent a tumble. It also builds stronger bones and muscles to protect against fractures and buffer the impact of a fall.

In a 2015 study, researchers compared strength and balance training in young (age 20-30) and old (age 65+) adults. In the beginning, the young participants outperformed the older ones. But at the end of the 13-week training period, the seniors nearly reached the same levels of strength and balance displayed by their younger counterparts.

Additional research published in the same year found that strength and resistance training led to significant balance recovery in adults over the age of 70.

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Also, it appears that all types of exercises, regardless of intensity, are beneficial.

For example, vigorous activity improves gait and stability when getting up from a seated position—an important finding, especially since studies show that your gait is a great predictor of your longevity.

But lower intensity exercise can enhance static balance and strengthen weak areas that lead to falls. (A good test of static balance is to stand on one leg for as long as possible without holding on to anything.)

And don’t underestimate the value of ancient exercises such as tai chi and yoga. Research suggests that both work as well or better than standard care in boosting quality of life, correcting balance, and lowering risk of falls.

All of these studies validate the results of a large meta-analysis published in 2013. In it, researchers looked at 17 trials involving 4,305 participants. They concluded that exercise had a significant positive effect on four categories of falls: all injurious falls, falls resulting in medical care, severe injurious falls, and falls resulting in fractures.

Find Exercise That’s Right for You

It’s indisputable. No matter what your age, you should be exercising. But it becomes less of an option and more of a necessity the older you get. Regular activity can curb equilibrium issues before they even start. And if you already have balance concerns, exercise can train your brain to adapt and re-stabilize you.

For maximum benefit, vary your routine by alternating between cardio-aerobic exercise, strength and resistance, and flexibility and balance training at least five days a week.

But start slow. You don’t need to run a marathon or dead lift 600 lb. Start by walking up and down your street…buy a few 10-15 lb dumbbells.

Work slow and increase from there. In time, you’ll regain the balance, stability, and the longevity you’ll need for the long run.

Take good care.

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